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Grant Awarded to New Biomedical Engineering Program

Grant Awarded to New Biomedical Engineering Program
Three UT Institutions Join Forces to Train Biotech Professionals
M. D. Anderson News Release 12/10/01

A $3 million development award from the Whitaker Foundation will help fund a new undergraduate biomedical engineering program built on a collaboration between The University of Texas at Austin, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recently approved the new biomedical engineering department and undergraduate program, which joins the expertise of the acclaimed engineering program at UT Austin with the medical experience of researchers in the renowned Texas Medical Center.

"What this means for the biomedical engineering student in Austin is access to Texas Medical Center physicians and their clinics, laboratories and operating rooms," said Dr. Kenneth Diller, chair of the new department at UT Austin.  "These engineering students will get to test their technology 'in the field' and actually experience patient and physician reactions ­ it's a high-tech, high-touch education."

For doctors in Texas Medical Center, this new program means access to the students who are researching and developing new engineering solutions for medical problems.

"We are in the midst of a revolution in medical science.  Molecular biology is changing the way we think about disease ­ from personalized genetic and metabolic profiling to gene therapy and tissue engineering," said Dr. Michele Follen, professor of gynecologic oncology at M. D. Anderson and director of the Biomedical Engineering Center at the Texas Medical Center, which opened earlier this year.

"With the new department in Austin and the new Biomedical Engineering Center in Houston, we hope to provide a unique environment that will facilitate collaboration among engineers, scientists and physicians," Dr. Follen said.

While the program opens up exciting new areas of research cooperation between Austin and Houston, it also will train a new generation of undergraduates and graduate students to provide innovative solutions that physicians and patients need at the bedside, said Dr. Dianna Milewicz, professor of medical genetics at UT-Houston Medical School and director of the MD/PhD program offered through UT-Houston and M. D. Anderson.  Dr. Milewicz will be co-director of the Biomedical Engineering Center along with Dr. Charles Patrick, associate professor of plastic surgery research at M. D. Anderson, who specializes in molecular tissue engineering.

"The advent of molecular-based disease detection and therapeutic technologies is already transforming the practice of medicine," Dr. Milewicz said. "But the growth of molecular medicine and its clinical translation depends on the availability of professionals with expertise in both engineering design and biological principles."

The program will offer three specialization tracks: imaging and instrumentation; cellular, tissue, and bio-molecular engineering; and computational biomedical engineering. Faculty from both Austin and Houston will teach the courses.

Students will have the opportunity to pursue clinical and research internships and senior design projects in the Texas Medical Center. In addition, future students will have access to the 64-acre Southeast Texas BioTechnology Park under development next to Texas Medical Center. The $633 million medical research complex will support new biotech ventures and spin-off products developed in the medical center, NASA and area research universities.  M. D. Anderson began construction on the park's first research building earlier this year.

UT Austin will begin enrolling students for the new Department of Biomedical Engineering in the fall of 2002 with a target enrollment of 500 students by 2006, making it one of the top producers of biomedical engineers in the country, Dr. Diller said.

Eighteen new faculty members will be recruited over a five-year period, including 12 at UT Austin and six within the Texas Medical Center Senior faculty at all three institutions also will participate. Milewicz said UT-Houston initially will contribute its expertise in neurosciences, genetics, cardiovascular disease and advanced imaging to complement UT-Austin's engineering excellence and M. D. Anderson's leadership in cancer treatment and research.

The $3 million Whitaker Foundation award hinged on the existence of an already established collaboration among the three institutions, according to Peter G. Katona, president of the Virginia-based foundation.

One product of the already existing collaboration is a new cancer-detecting optical probe, developed by engineering professor Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum at UT Austin in collaboration with Dr. Follen from M. D. Anderson. Dr. Follen is now leading clinical trials to test the probe on 1,800 women as an alternative to the colposcopy, a procedure used to detect cervical cancer. Dr. Richards-Kortum estimated this technology could save up to $625 million annually in the United States through more efficient and effective cervical screenings.

The Whitaker Foundation is a private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to improving human health through the support of biomedical engineering. Since its inception in 1975, the foundation has awarded more than $575 million to colleges and universities for faculty research, graduate fellowships and program development.


© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center